As Bernie Sanders catches up with Hillary in Iowa and leads in New Hampshire, it’s beginning to look like 2008 wasn’t an anomaly. Although Hillary Clinton is a formidable force within the Democratic party, scaring would be candidates from challenging her, she is in actuality not a strong candidate.
She remains more the competent policy wonk and lawyer than political campaigner. Her intelligence, policy knowledge, and experience don’t translate to her being a good candidate. She is outside her element.
That doesn’t mean she won’t prevail – Bernie Sanders is no Barack Obama, and 2016 has a much different political landscape than 2008 – but it’s quite possible that she’ll stumble. Barring a surge from Martin O’Malley, that could mean that we’ll all be feeling the Bern come summer. But does Sanders have a realistic chance to win the general election?
Some say Sanders can’t win because he’s a “socialist.” That seems damning to some older white males who remember the Cold War and equate socialism with the Soviet Union, but most of those people aren’t voting Democratic anyway. To the extent his views have popular appeal, especially with the youth, he’s actually making socialism “cool.” His model is Sweden, not Stalin. He’s catching on more with young people than is Rand Paul’s brand of libertarianism.
On the left many say Cruz or Trump can’t win. Cruz is an extremist with some bizarre views, and Trump is a carnival barker, a con man who changes positions based on what the people want to hear. The reality: We might have President Cruz. President Trump. Or President Sanders – all could win, and if it’s Cruz or Trump vs. Sanders, one almost certainly will.
Sanders best scenario is if he faces Cruz or Trump. In each case the antipathy of a good chunk of the electorate for the Republican means they’d vote for Elmer Fudd if he were the Democrat. Add that to the ability to energize the base and appeal to youth, and a Sanders victory is possible, especially if many Republicans stay home (something more likely if Trump is the nominee).
A more interesting question is whether Sanders, win or lose (to Hillary or in the fall) is able to shift the political discourse towards a populism on the left. Obama, like Clinton and Gore, succeeded by stressing moderate policies and gaining the support of Wall Street and the financial sector. Clinton’s administration set the ground work for the financial melt down by preventing regulation of the big banks, a process Bush continued.
If so, then just as the GOP has shifted from the pragmatic moderation of Reagan and the Bushes to a more extreme conservatism, it’s possible the Democrats could move the other way. How would the establishment – which is moderate and works well with both parties – respond if suddenly both parties took a decidedly anti-establishment turn! If Sanders were to win, would he use the bully pulpit to move the country more his direction, like Reagan did in the 1980s?
Right now I’d say the odds are against Sanders, just as they are against Cruz and Trump. I wouldn’t be surprised if we ended up with Kasich vs. Clinton. The politics of a pre-election year often don’t foretell how the campaigns will wind up. But Sanders – both the man and his ideas – have a following and a voice that has been absent for some time. Over the next year we’ll find out if this is just a momentary surge or if it resonates and profoundly impacts America’s political culture. Stranger things have happened.